Election Day 2022: Media focus on machine malfunctions; Analysts revisit campaign conduct in commentaries

FILIPINOS VOTED May 9 in the most consequential election since 1986 when “people power” overthrew the Marcos dictatorship. COVID-19 cast a shadow on the prospects of the event being held. The pandemic had severely strained the already poor state of the national health care system. The crisis caused the economy to collapse to levels comparable to those of World War II. The Russian invasion of Ukraine added to the country’s economic woes, with the prices of fuel and basic commodities rising steadily.

Even the most competent of national leaders would find great difficulty addressing the problems that the pandemic has left as, hopefully, it wanes. But the continuing threat of quick spreading diseases will remain, and managing the contradictory requirements of economic recovery and public health will require the highest level of skills in government.

Politicians have not always proved effective managers of crisis, their careers being based mostly on popularity. In a developing democracy like the Philippines, success in politics does not necessarily equate with skilled and effective public service. 

Elections do not always raise the best candidates to office, a sad fact that has time and again been proven by the country’s electoral history. Given the national state of affairs, the people’s choice on May 9 will decide the course of national recovery after the pandemic. The outcome of the one-day event can either be a beacon of hope or a harbinger of further ruin.

The consequences of the people’s choice are also obvious at another level. The popularity of authoritarian Rodrigo Roa Duterte has held through his six-year term. Various factors were in play which do not have to be discussed here.

But clearly, he had won over many Filipinos despite the display of incompetence in administering his own government programs. Duterte’s leadership also openly dismissed the value of human rights. Human rights are in his view a hindrance to the completion of need to be done. The record of his much touted “war on drugs” left over six thousand dead, based on police records, many more if one includes cases which the Philippine National Police (PNP) classifies as unexplained homicides;  human rights groups estimate the killings to be around 30,000.

His term of office stretched state power beyond constitutional limits, including the killing not just of drug suspects but also of human rights defenders and lawyers. The assault on the system of checks and balance was unprecedented in the period of democratic restoration. The attacks against the media included violence and unprecedented measures, including the closure of a major television network.

Duterte’s admiration for the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. was open and effusive. One of his first acts was to allow the Marcos family to bury his remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Not surprisingly, Duterte’s daughter Sara, who took over from her father as mayor of Davao City, filed her candidacy for vice president as running mate of the dictator’s son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., a candidate for president.

Those who supported the authoritarian, security-oriented governance of Duterte saw election day as the potential restoration of the Marcos family to power. But the choice stems from their own appreciation of Duterte’s rejection of democratic values.

The election thus exposes the basic weakness that hobbles democratic practice in the country: the lack of understanding of what democracy is about, the absence of conditions that make democracy work including the protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and press freedom. After over three decades after the ouster of a dictatorship, People Power seemed bereft of the lessons it demonstrated, the strength of people’s sovereignty. Duterte laid out for all to see that not enough Filipinos really care about democracy. 

Duterte and his allies—the Marcoses, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Joseph Estrada, Manuel Villar—all believe in elections, the democratic mechanism that have allowed them to establish political dynasties and to amass great wealth. 

The vote for this type of politics is blind to what real democracy requires. Voting for this alliance was clearly a vote completely disconnected with the ideals of democracy.

High hopes

As  election day approached, hopes ran high that democracy would win, not just in a one-day event but as an ongoing project for the future, engaging all citizens not just to vote but also to bring to life the principle of citizenship and self-government. The election so far has shown that these Filipinos constitute a minority.  

For the first time multiple candidates have not hindered the top contender to lead with a majority as current counts indicate the almost total demolition of the opposition. 

The opposition in the Philippines before Martial Law was a force given the competition between two rival parties. And for seven elections, no president ever succeeded in getting a second term as provided for by the old system. 

Recent presidents, however, have dominated the legislature in such a way as to weaken any opposition, cutting off those who oppose them from any resources with which to serve their constituencies. Every winner can count on a ruling coalition among the different parties ready to support the president. 

Media may have followed only the most prominent five contenders. There was greater focus, however, on the top two: Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., who led in all the surveys, and Vice President Leni Robredo, a leading opposition figure who trailed behind Marcos in the surveys, but who was vigorously supported by leading sectors and civic groups, including 1Sambayan, a broad coalition of pro-democracy groups and individuals.

On election day, media witnessed a turning point in Filipino history. Journalists too young to appreciate the irony of a Marcos victory in 2022 learned from the commentary of those who did what a stunning setback the election is for Philippine democracy.

CMFR followed the May 9 and 10 coverage of ABS-CBN’s Kapamilya Channel, Teleradyo and cable channel ANC; CNN Philippines; GMA-7 and GTV (formerly GMA News TV); and TV5 and its sister cable channel, ONE News.

Production notes

GMA-7 was the earliest to begin special coverage at 4 am, while the rest began their programs at 5 am. As in previous elections, media made use of a combination of different content: field reports, individual and panel interviews with experts and analysts, data visualizations, and social media updates.

CNN Philippines opted for the simple set-up for the interviews with which it would do most of the day’s coverage. Both ABS-CBN and GMA-7 employed the big look, using studios to effect the broad scope of coverage. GMA-7 made use of computer-generated graphics to enhance visuals of reports on data.

TV5 and ONE News also had an anchor’s desk, shifting to the panoramic screen in the background for more data; this projected an active engagement between anchors, panels and the reporter using the screen.

Levels of competition

GMA had the widest reach on election day as it mobilized its regional network. Through GTV, GMA was the only network to present in a dedicated program election updates from the provinces. Anchors from the regions facilitated this program. The newscast covered areas in North and South Luzon; West, Central and Eastern Visayas and five more regions in Mindanao.

Only ABS-CBN had an in-house data analyst, Edson Guido, who early in the day presented data on the voting population and their distribution across the country. Later, when election returns were transmitted, he guided the audience through the counts, checking how Marcos and Robredo fared in their bailiwicks. Guido and Jester delos Santos, reporter for ONE News, also compared voting patterns and voter turnout between the 2016 and 2022 elections by using interactive heat maps.

TV5 and ONE News’ anchors doubled as data presenters during coverage, using tools on-set to provide backgrounders on topics such as significant regional corridors.

Aside from field reports from different precincts, CNN Philippines prepared explainers on the procedures after the vote: how voting machines automatically count each ballot, the printing of election returns, the transmission of counts to the Board of Canvassers before the announcement of winners. Their coverage included some reports which were shown previously in their “Election Law for All” which provided voters the do’s and don’ts based on the rules. 

GMA re-aired its “Dapat Totoo” report series, with added clips on the voting process and of finding precincts, among other content helpful for voters. 

VCM breakdowns

24 Oras anchor Mel Tiangco and reporter Tina Panganiban-Perez banter about the recorded technical problems during the Elections 2022. | Screengrab from GMA News and Public Affairs Youtube video.

The coverage of the May 9 elections spotlighted the same technical problems reported in the last four automated elections. Several vote counting machines (VCMs) malfunctioned, causing longer queues and longer waiting times for voters. Recurring complaints reported included paper jams, rejection of ballots, failure to scan ballots, failure to print receipts, or failure of SD cards. 

As of 8:15 am, merely two hours since the voting started, Comelec told the media that 10 machines had already needed replacement. By its noontime briefing, Comelec said 1,800 machines had failed in one way or another. But Commissioner George Garcia maintained that only 10 needed replacement and that the rest were repaired successfully.

Failure, insufficiency of machines

For much of the entire day, field reports mostly tackled these malfunctions, and the subsequent inconvenience to voters, some of whom had to wait long hours to complete their vote. In some cases, reporters said the replacement machines or SD cards had to be retrieved from Comelec’s Laguna warehouse.

Curiously, there was no representative of Smartmatic who could take questions from the media as in previous elections, but the media did not point this out or ask about it.

The process of elections requires adjustments to changing circumstances from one election to the next. Demographic growth must be tracked in order to provide for more people who will vote. But while it is Comelec’s failure, the media are just as required to flag the impact of population growth before election day itself. 

For other matters, anchors must be alert, observing what needs to be pointed out, not just asking questions but ready to criticize what they observe to be failings on the part of the Comelec. 

The shortage of machines was a blatant hindrance to the process of voting. One voting machine served clusters of up to four precincts.

Shortly before 2 pm, TV5 anchors Gretchen Ho and Lourd De Veyra pointed out to Comm. Garcia the fact that there were too few contingency machines available this year despite the increase in the number of precincts. Garcia, however, maintained that malfunctions were expected, and that most of the machines that malfunctioned did not need replacement. He did not explain whether Comelec should have invested in more machines, and why it didn’t.

Anchoring 24 Oras, Mel Tiangco asked reporter Tina Panganiban-Perez who was stationed in Comelec for an acceptable reason for the VCM breakdowns, emphasizing that the Comelec did perform final tests prior to Election Day. Panganiban-Perez reiterated Comelec’s explanation that the breakdowns cannot be avoided, especially since the machines have been in use since 2016. In a later interview in the same program, Comm. Garcia told anchor Vicky Morales that to the best of his knowledge as a newly-appointed commissioner, Comelec did try to purchase more VCMs, but their budget was insufficient. Morales said this election was actually the most expensive election, with the bulk of the budget dedicated to COVID-proofing this national activity.

Unfortunately, the media failed to examine this aspect of Comelec’s preparations or lack of it before May 9. The increase in the number of voters was known but this did not provoke the questions that would have exposed the insufficiency of VCMs.

Contingency measures, ballot secrecy

Per Comelec Resolution 10759 on contingency measures, voters were asked to choose between leaving their ballots with the Electoral Board for batch-feeding, or waiting for the machines to be repaired or replaced. Reporters noted that those who chose to leave their ballots placed them in a separate box and signed a waiver allowing the Electoral Board to feed the ballots in the VCMs on their behalf. This meant that they would not be able to check their individual voter receipts. Some members of the Electoral Board said they were required to record machine-related incidents in official minutes.

Reporters took note when voters chose to feed the ballots to the machines themselves which meant long hours of waiting. Voters who talked to the media varied in recalling waiting times, but insisted that they would feel more at ease if they themselves fed the ballots into the VCMs. One notable example reported by the media was the case in the North Susana Executive Village in Brgy. Old Balara, Quezon City, where voters chose to stay overnight to wait for replacement SD cards.

In Garcia’s interviews with the media, he said the protocol of leaving ballots with the Electoral Board was not new. Media did not recall whether voters opted for this in previous elections, and whether voters in previous elections were more receptive to this idea.

Media did not say it outright, but voters’ holding on to their ballots indicated a distrust with the election process and mechanisms in place. Comelec’s downplaying of the incidents as something that can be expected did not inspire public confidence. It did not help that in the Comelec’s 4 pm briefing, Commissioner Marlon Casquejo floated the idea of retiring the VCMs.

From call for extensions to speed of results

TV Patrol anchor Karen Davila asks Commissioner George Garcia about voting hours extension due to the long queues of voters during the final hours of voting. | Screengrab from ABS-CBN News Youtube video.

As early as 11 am, election watchdog Kontradaya called for the extension of voting hours. Some newscasts referred to Kontradaya’s statement. But in its 4 pm briefing, Comelec insisted it would not extend beyond 7 pm.

CNN Philippines in its 6 pm newscast still tried to follow up on whether Comelec would change its mind. Minutes before precincts’ closure at 7 pm, TV Patrol anchors Karen Davila and Henry Omaga Diaz asked Garcia what would compel the Comelec to extend voting hours. They argued that it was neither the pandemic nor the voters’ fault that they had to line up for hours, and that some of those who had to work during the day had no choice but to go during the final hours of voting, only to find long queues. Garcia said he was also waiting for the advice of Comelec whether the voting period would be extended; it was not.

After precincts closed at 7 pm, Comelec started transmitting partial and unofficial results through its transparency server. At 7:17 pm, the transparency server reflected 3.21percent of precincts that had already transmitted election returns. Two hours later, the server had already received more than 50 percent. The media reported these automatically, with little reference to the earlier concern about having to extend election hours or to the possibility of establishing a trend while some voters still had to cast their ballots.

Early results reflected the lead of Marcos Jr. over Robredo. Sara Duterte, Marcos Jr.’s running mate, was also leading over Robredo’s running mate, Kiko Pangilinan. By 9 pm, and at 57% of transmitted returns, Marcos Jr.’s votes were at 18.9 million and Robredo’s at 8.9 million. Duterte was at 18.5 million and Pangilinan at 5.6 million.

ABS-CBN’s Guido explained that most of the transmitted returns at the time came from urban areas with faster internet connections. He clarified that speed in transmission was the ultimate goal of having elections automated, so this need not be a cause for concern. Guido also pointed to early returns reflecting wins in the respective bailiwicks of Marcos Jr. and Robredo. In a later report, he presented a heat map proving the strong hold of the Marcos-Duterte team over northern and southern Philippines. Robredo, meanwhile, won in the Bicol region and Western Visayas.

Ho, anchoring for ONE News at 10 pm, asked Prof. Danny Arao, KontraDaya co-convenor, how the accuracy of results was affected by the machine breakdowns. Arao acknowledged that transmitted results and the speed of transmission did not suggest cheating or fraud, and that the election returns still pending transmission would not necessarily guarantee significant changes to the election results. 

But he emphasized that the machine failures still put into question Comelec’s credibility. Arao said Kontradaya was disappointed with the Comelec for not granting such a simple request as extending voting hours.

As news programs continued to report on the unofficial results of the elections, Marcos Jr. and Duterte maintained their wide lead over Robredo and Pangilinan. The atmosphere of reportage became somber as the Marcos presidency loomed as a reality, and as the memory of the past caught up with the present, 36 years after the Edsa People Power movement.

Commentary focuses on the campaign

As in previous elections, there was no shortage of political analysts and academics to sustain discussions throughout the day, sharing their insights about the campaign and the various factors that affected the way voters would vote. 

Professors of political science, some of them guesting in more than one network, recognized that compared to previous elections, the overall conduct of the campaign was largely driven by the actual participation of supporters and their activities both online and offline.

Social media

Jonathan Ong talks about social media influence in the 2022 PH elections with ANC anchor Migs Bustos. | Screengrab from ABS-CBN News Youtube video.

Commentary focused on the amplified role of social media and more recently developed platforms. Experts pointed to the power of these instruments to polarize, to spread fake news and disinformation in different formats to praise or malign a candidate. 

Jonathan Ong, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a research fellow of Kennedy School at Harvard gave interviews to ANC and GTV after midnight, emphasizing that Marcos Jr. played the long game in his presidential bid, weaponizing social media to revise facts and history. He said the on-the-ground campaign of Marcos Jr. might have looked “safe” or “boring”, but the “creativity” and “grand rehabilitation” of the Marcos image all happened online and began many years ago, involving video productions and influencers. 

But in an interview in GMA-7, Toff Rada, TikTok’s Head of Policy, belied TikTok’s influence on the campaign, even when Ong had observed that the platform capitalizes on the “virality” of political content. Responding to a question of anchor Malou Mangahas about the stronger presence of some candidates on Tiktok, Rada evaded the question by saying the platform is for entertainment and discourages debates and divisive political discussions, so political candidates are treated no differently from ordinary citizens using the platform.

Campaigns characterized

Some resource speakers noted the impressive in-person participation of supporters, particularly for Marcos Jr. and Robredo. Prof. Eduardo Araral of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy told CNN Philippines that two more campaign elements were added to the traditional 3Gs of guns, goons and gold. “This year’s election, dagdagan natin ‘yan, gawin nating 5G, kasama na diyan ang Google o social media at saka ground mobilizations,” he added.

Older observers may see ground mobilization as the old political machinery. Did ground mobilization operate on the same level in the two leading campaigns of Marcos and Robredo? 

Some resource persons acknowledged the inherent and particular strength of the people-led campaign for Robredo. In a ONE News interview, Ronald Llamas, former presidential adviser to Benigno Aquino III said Robredo’s campaign was more spontaneous and decentralized, as compared to Marcos Jr.’s which had a recurring slogan of unity issued from the top. Lawyer Tony La Vina told ANC that he believes the Robredo campaign became even more inclusive in the last few weeks and was able to disprove others’ perception of it as alienating and elitist. He said the coalition that Robredo mustered was the broadest that Philippine politics has ever seen, as it managed to unite “the most conservative and the most ideal.”

Prof. Jean Franco, in her parting shot on ABS-CBN at midnight, said, “Marcos Jr. and Sara may have won the election, but it is actually Leni and Kiko who have captured the hearts and minds, especially the young people who have supported them. No one can take that away from them.”

CMFR also noted some critical notes from anchors:

ANC’s Michelle Ong said during the interview with La Vina that Robredo has proven her competence and untarnished record of service. Ong said she was a “dream candidate” on paper, but apparently this was not enough to convince voters.

Morales, sitting in for GMA-7, pointed out in an interview with UP Prof. Ranjit Rye, “This election has rewritten the way elections are won in this country. Hindi na kailangan maglatag ng plataporma sa mga debate, hindi na kailangan mag-grant ng mga interview. Kailangan mo lang ng siguro tanyag na apelyido, solid yung machinery mo, social media, and maybe a long history in politics.”

Vicky Morales interviews Ranjit Rye. | Screengrab from GMA News and Public Affairs Youtube video.

Moving forward

The Marcos-Duterte win compels the free press to break away from news conventions. Journalism must get ahead of the story of the return of a Marcos to the Presidency even before June 30. 

Commendably, TV5 provided a helpful examination of party alignments in the House of Representatives and the Senate, identifying who are poised to be allied with the incoming administration and who will form part of the opposition, as well as those who might swing votes in crucial decisions.

The coverage of election day indicated an awareness among the media of the institutional lapses that have brought the country to its current situation. This includes the failure of media to focus more on voters and what people need to know so they can make this sovereign choice wisely. Media should no longer wait to be fed by government briefings. Journalists must set the news agenda and be alert to the moves to shrink civic space, to silence critical voices, and to ignore the minority that plays a vital role in every true democracy.